You're not a better person just because you get up early

I love to sleep. Or rather, I love to sleep in. True, now that I have two children under five, lolling about in bed as the morning rolls on is rarely an option. But in my youth I would happily miss the a.m. altogether, passing directly to the noon hours without passing Go.

I know what you're thinking: Feckless soul. Snap to it. Those readers with a background in the Services will look back upon their own military training – up at the crack, uniform pressed with creases you could cut yourself on – and shudder at the very notion of such sluggardliness. But I respectfully declare myself baffled by such moral superiority.

For I did not spend half my life unconscious, wilfully wasting precious time until death should make my inertness permanent. It's just that I always liked to stay up late, often into the early hours. So naturally I got up later. Like those saintly souls so universally applauded for being early to bed and early to rise, I spent stretches of eight or so hours pushing out the Zzzzzs. But mine often began at 4am instead of 10pm. What's wrong with that?

Hunter-gathering instincts

Nothing, if you ask me. And now it turns out my behaviour was literally blameless. Our varying sleep patterns are apparently all down to our hunter-gatherer past, when members of the tribe staggered periods of consciousness to ensure that someone was awake around the clock to scare away the predators. Looks like I inherited a few early nightwatchman genes.

And this trait is far from being something to look down upon. It was organised division of labour like this that gave Homo sapiens a big advantage over Neanderthals, so you might argue night owls are in fact the very basis of our civilisation. Not so bad for a bunch of lag-a-beds.

Yet, since then, society has evolved in a different way. Today we prize and celebrate getting up early to a ludicrous degree. Silicon Valley CEOs boast about how many things they have done before breakfast, as if a 5am gym workout is somehow more virtuous than a treadmill session at 5pm.

Acknowledge your personal rhythm

Nonsense. Many people simply work better at the end of the day. And in an increasingly fragmented, digital economy where you can shop and bank around the clock, it makes no sense for millions of us slavishly to follow the same patterns, slogging in and out together on the same packed commuter trains.

This is one reason that early birds are so vaunted – they get ahead of everyone else. Travelling into work on the 5:17am service, they boast, means they can dodge the crowds and be more productive. Yet we late risers are looking for exactly the same, treasuring the magical peace and quiet when everyone else is asleep, to work and read in peace. It is every bit the secret, private world that dawntreaders think is their own, exclusive preserve.

Where getting up early is coated in virtue, however, getting up late is larded in guilt. My great hero Dr Johnson, one of the most productive men in English letters (he wrote the dictionary on his own), viciously lambasted himself for his habit of working – and getting up – late. It was, he felt, a terrible moral failing.


If only the great man had known about those hunter gatherers, maybe he could have spared himself some of the misery. Now that we do, however, there is no more excuse to look on midday sleepyheads with disdain.

The Telegraph, London